All photos by Tan Camera.
Melanie Martinez first came to our attention—and the world's—as a contestant from the third season of The Voice when the gap-toothed, blunt-banged singer reworked Britney's "Toxic" in sweetly assured tones, acoustic guitar in hand, tambourine knocking between her ankles. With her idiosyncratic sense of style, and vocals that managed to embody throwback soul, coyness, and modern sass, Martinez was an intriguing proposition—one that could never be hemmed in by a reality talent show. That was three years ago and in the interim the now 20-year-old singer has been honing her sound resulting in last year's debut EP, Dollhouse, and finally, below we're streaming her debut album, Cry Baby, a week ahead of its release. Hers is a distinctly 21st century twist of pop, spikily honest and occasionally barbed words served up in cinnamon-dusted melodies, a swirl of R&B curves, stuttering beats, and ratatat hi-hats.
The New York-state born Puerto Rican/Dominican singer pens tunes that'll appeal to fans of Lorde as much as Purity Ring. On recent single "Soap," Martinez surprised by dropping booming, dubby sonics in the chorus and it worked. It also helps that her videos are an entire, immersive world, equal parts Edward Scissorhands-odd and Candyland cute. She's Lydia from Beetlejuice reimagined as as a pop star who skewers each song with evocative imagery coiling around essential and universal experiences. _Which brings us to photographer friend Kimi Selfridge—a friend of Martinez's—whose photos, as Tan Camera, we've long been a fan of (she shot for Noisey at this year's SXSW). In an insta-world, Selfridge makes her mark by capturing the stolen moments with the likes of Charli XCX, Alex Winston, Kate Nash, and of course Melanie Martinez, in _35mm, Polaroid, and Fuji Instax film. (Not to mention her recent collaboration with A$AP Rocky.) Her images are both intimate and feminine, her double exposures a middle distance memory. So we had Selfridge call up Martinez for a chat.__
Kimi Selfridge says: To know Melanie is to love her. Having met by chance just over a year ago, I've had the opportunity to watch Melanie create, define, and curate a world. A world in which she lives both on and off camera, where make-believe intersects with reality. Attention to detail not only comes through in her visuals, but also in her songwriting. She is a storyteller, truly seeing a vision through to the end.
In anticipation of Cry Baby’s release, we had talked process, inspirations, and most importantly, each song’s story.
Kimi Selfridge: First of all, what's up, how are you? The album is coming out so soon, I’m probably more excited than anyone. I'm such a fan, you don't understand.
Melanie Martinez: I’m excited too.
What's your perspective on this album? Obviously you're connected to it, you wrote it, but I would love to hear how you feel about each song—how it applies to you, your bigger story, what character this is. How much of it is you? How much of it is exaggerated? Talk.
I am Cry Baby. It's very hard to separate myself from the character. It's still something that I'm trying to figure out. I am the character that I made for myself. [Laughs.] I knew that I wanted the album to be called Cry Baby for the longest time and my main reason for it was because I was teased as a kid for being super emotional and I took things way too seriously.
I feel you. I feel like I was the same way.
I think this album was kind of a way to overcome my insecurities in a lot of areas of my life. I wanted to turn the name cry baby into a compliment.
Is there a line between Cry Baby the character and Melanie?
Yeah. In the story of the album there's some things that I didn't experience. I love stories and fairytales, so I wanted it to still feel super whimsical, or else it wasn't fun for me. I look at music like I look at art; it's like painting a picture. If I had a strong visual behind the song, I knew that I was going to use it. It was about the whole package.
It's part of the story.
Exactly. The first song "Cry Baby" is the introduction to who she is. It gives you a deeper look into her mind and how she reacts to things and how she feels.
Who'd you write Cry Baby with?
I wrote it with Kinetics and One Love in New York. I came into the studio and was like "I really need to write this song, 'Cry Baby,' I’m gonna lose my mind if I don't write this song." And at first it started with me just ranting on my phone. I was trying to write down lyrics, so I just went off on my phone about how it made me feel when people called me a cry baby when I was a kid. I wish I could find it now; it's a huge bummer because my phone broke after that. I should have just written it down. Most of the lyrics were just from me ranting in rhyme. One of the things I wrote was "Someone's turning the handle to the faucet in your eyes / You pour it out where everyone can see." That's an exact lyric from me writing out of frustration on my phone. [Laughs.]
I love it. That's amazing. So, track two is "Dollhouse." I feel like people can read a lot about it, but tell me what people don't know about Dollhouse.
"Dollhouse" was the first thing that started everything really. It was the first toy sound inspired song. It’s describing Cry Baby's family life and who she is surrounded by. The concept was kind of a double meaning for how I think people view celebrities and artists. You have to be perfect to be a "good role model" when those aren't realistic expectations. "Dollhouse" was the first session I had with Kinetics and One Love; it was really awesome because I wasn't really into co-writing, nobody was understanding me, nobody was getting what I was saying. So, when I met Jeremy and Tim [Kinetics and One Love] it was just fucking awesome, because they were down to experiment with toy sounds for hours and watch Tim Burton movies in sessions before we wrote.
Let's talk about "Sippy Cup."
It's a part two to "Dollhouse." I walked into the studio and was like "I'm obsessed with water, I really want some water sounds." And I always had a list in my phone of titles and that's how every session would start. The titles were the concepts. "Sippy Cup" is a deeper look into the "Dollhouse." It's kind of the uncensored more descriptive, how her family life is shaping her, type of song. In the music video I continued the story and had the mom kill the dad and mistress and poison Cry Baby putting her to sleep to forget what happened.
The next one is "Carousel" and that's Cry Baby's first love interest. I wanted it to be kind of magical to capture those first love feels, but still express the dark side of how toxic and kind of one-sided the relationship was. I was actually telling the story of one of my relationships and "Carousel" was the perfect title because I felt like I was bolted on a never ending carousel ride and he was on the horse in front of me, I was reaching out and could never grab him.
What's interesting about your whole vision is how you're able to take these darker emotional topics and have this bright, whimsical imagery to pair with it.
That was the whole point of the album. I wanted there to be a contrast. The next track after "Carousel" is "Alphabet Boy," and that’s mine and Cry Baby’s break up song. I wanted to title it "Alphabet Boy," because he was in college for music and used to try and "teach" me how to write songs as if there was a formula or I wasn't writing songs correctly. It made me furious and I just wanted to elaborate on that. Me and Jeremy used lots of alliteration in that song for all the verses. We wanted to go in order of the alphabet. So the verse lyrics are "Always aiming paper airplanes at me when you're around / You build me up like building blocks just so you can break me down / You can crush my candy cane but you'll never catch me cry / If you dangle that diploma and I dead you don't be surprised." The next song is "Soap."
You don't even want to know how often I listen to "Soap" on repeat. I love playing it for people and just watching them as the chorus approaches and seeing them experience that beat for the first time.
[Laughs.] "Soap" is about "Cry Baby" being hurt after her heartbreak and too scared to say how she feels about a boy she meets. So she washes her mouth out with soap because she doesn't want to fuck anything up. This was also a situation that I went through. I was referring to my words being like the water coming out of the faucet. And it was like he was taking a bath in what I was saying. And if I said I loved you it would be like throwing a toaster in the tub. I didn't want to electrocute him. And the next song after "Soap" is "Training Wheels."
So, "Training Wheels" is a love song.
Yeah, "Training Wheels" is the only love song on the album. I had this idea of taking off the training wheels and really going for it. I basically wanted to say that I wanted to ride a two-wheeler with him and go to the next level. I wrote this song in like 20 minutes. It was always a difficult experience writing to happy major chords. But somehow because of how happy and in love I really was it came super quick.
What's the next track after "Training Wheels"?
"Pity Party" is about "Cry Baby" inviting her new love and all of her friends to her birthday party. He doesn't show up and neither does anyone else. She's broken-hearted for a second time. I think "Pity Party" is a huge turning point for Cry Baby.
What's the next track?
The next track is "Tag, You're It." Cry Baby is now single and wolves are on the prowl. She gets kidnapped by a "wolf."
Is this a certain person or is this a fantastical thing?
This is just part of the fairytale. I love making up stories. After "Tag, You're It", it's “Milk and Cookies." "Milk and Cookies" is her poisoning the wolf with milk and cookies and escaping.
Yeah. [Giggles.] After that she becomes a different person, she's completely embraced the crazy for sure. She's absolutely insane. So the next track is "Pacify Her," which is basically her being a home wrecker. She’s so numb to love and doesn't think that it exists. She just stops caring at this point. And after that, is "Mrs. Potatohead." She’s becoming more confident and comfortable in her own skin, so she's forming opinions. I had the idea for "Mrs. Potatohead" for a long time and the whole visual I had in my head was the fact that you can pull toy pieces off the face and that could represent plastic surgery. It was not me bashing women who get plastic surgery, but more of a "Why are you doing this when you're beautiful without it?" The last song, and the last story of the album, is "Mad Hatter." It's very lyrical, very hip-hop. I wanted it to be about my transition and Cry Baby’s transition into embracing who we truly are. Crazy people.
Celebrating who you are.
And celebrating the most comfortable in my skin I've ever been in my life. Same for Cry Baby.
It seems like a breakthrough.
Elaborate on your style and when you started dying your hair two different colors.
I think I started dying my hair when I was 16. My mom never let me bleach my hair growing up; she was so against it. So, I was watching 101 Dalmatians one day and I told my mom I was going to dye my hair like Cruella de Vil and she was like "No, you're not, you're not gonna do that." She thought I was kidding. I was like "OK", and I went to the salon and called her before I got it and she didn't believe me. [Laughs.] And I came home and she just freaks out and didn't talk to me for literally a week. My dad didn't give a shit, but he wasn't talking to me because she wasn't talking to me, it was hilarious. [Laughs.]
You had a vision; you just had to do it. I love that. When did you start dying the blonde a color?
The first color I dyed my hair was purple, it was random, I kind of just grabbed a bottle of Manic Panic at a Hot Topic and went to my friend's house. We had no idea how to dye hair, and she just glooped purple all over my head. I was addicted from that point on.
Talk a little bit about your aesthetic.
I think that it's all been based on the whole little kid theme. It's like the music. Still making it kind of adult, but inspired by nursery vibes. The music really sparked everything. Once "Dollhouse" happened, I really came into that whole mode. I wanted everything to be so cohesive and it felt natural to dress the way I was because I just liked it and clung to pastels and fluffy marabou and vintage little girl-styled dresses.
Have you always had this aesthetic as your preference?
I would wear darker colors back then but still wore bows and dresses with Peter Pan collars. My color preference has definitely changed. I love pastels now. I'm obsessed with them. I still haven't gotten sick of them. And I feel very awkward in black.
When do you wear black?
I try sometimes. I just feel more comfortable in these colors.
Because you're so dark on the inside…
Yeah. [Giggles.] I do like to give it contrast.
Lure people in…
Yeah. [Laughs.] So I can bite 'em!
Tan Camera is a rad photographer. Follow her on Instagram.